Tired after work one day recently, I pulled up 30 Rock. After one episode became three, my conscience piped up. “Are you sure you should be doing this?”
“But,” I protested, “this is self-care.”
The irritating voice nagged at me. “But do you really feel cared for?”
I ran a systems check. My back felt like a stale pretzel; my brain was foggy; I felt bored, aimless, and prematurely grey. I was no better off than when I’d flung myself on the couch earlier. I don’t know about you, but when I let myself do whatever I want — and I’m running on empty — I take the path of least resistance. This path generally ends with Netflix asking if I’m still awake.
Real self-care, I’ve found, has less to do with what I feel like doing in the moment than how well an activity or practice re-energizes me for the rest of my life. It can take a bit of planning and participation. And like so many things, we get out of it what we put into it.
I’ve spent the last few months re-learning what it means to practice effective self-care. Here’s what I’ve found.
01. Self-care isn’t one-size-fits-all.
Yoga, scented candles, a glass of wine — the images we summon when we think of self-care are surprisingly uniform, given how unique we are as individuals. Here’s the thing: What relaxes your neighbor (or all those bloggers you follow on Instagram) might not do it for you. And that’s okay.
Once I let go of the idea that self-care had to look a certain way, I started noticing—and subsequently, seeking out — all the little things that rejuvenate me. For example: I love rain. Whenever it comes, I make tea, open a door, and sit close to the doorway. I huddle in a blanket. My face and toes get wet. I feel alive.
Experiment: Open a note in your phone and label it something kitschy—mine’s “It’s Electric,” as in, the Slide. Over the next few weeks, take a moment and notice whenever you feel most alive, when you laugh the hardest, when you smile the widest. See if a pattern emerges. You might be surprised.
02. Self-care is best defined by how refreshed you feel after.
Self-care can easily turn into self-indulgence, especially when we’re so burned out that we feel like we earned that pint of ice cream or online shopping spree. How can we tell the difference?
One important distinction is its intended outcome. Self-care helps you become a happier, healthier person, and its results have staying power. We need to pick activities that make us feel good afterward, in the big picture. This doesn’t always come at the expense of immediate satisfaction, but sometimes it might.
Happiness writer and researcher Gretchen Rubin summed up this paradox nicely: “What makes us happy doesn’t always make us feel happy.” In order to care for ourselves effectively, we need to think forward. When I’m tired and down, my first inclination for self-soothing might just be to crash, but I know that my life will be better if I take a moment to change into something comfortable and take my dog for a walk before resting.
If I am always choosing my present self’s satisfaction over my future self’s happiness, I’m always going to feel rushed and frustrated. My present self has to be generous to make this work.
03. Self-care takes planning and practice.
Figuring out what refreshes us isn’t the only challenge; fitting it into our lives is another.
We need ways to mesh self-care seamlessly and subconsciously into our lives, which takes some planning and some mental stamina. In other words, we need to get practical. Here are a few tips that have helped me incorporate effective self-care into my routine.
Take your pulse often.Get in the habit of pausing every once in a while to check in with yourself. The ability to realize when you are anything other than calm is powerful because you can then pause and take steps to pull yourself back to center. If my mind is racing, for example, I’ve learned that taking in more media doesn’t help. I usually need to sweat it out through exercise, do something (actually) mindless, or write out what I’m thinking.
Recognize your rhythms. Look at your day and find patterns. I’ve realized that my “firsts”—the first things in the morning, the first things after work—set the tone for my day. If I sit down to watch TV right after work, I’m still there hours later; if I put in a load of laundry, do some yoga, write for a bit, and then let myself watch some TV while dinner’s cooking, then sitting on the couch feels more like a treat and I go to bed happy. Find your weak points and brainstorm habits to bolster them.
Automate whatever you can.You don’t think about brushing your teeth every night, right? Let’s make it just as much of a habit to care for the rest of ourselves. Find a specific, frequent action or trigger (example: coming home after work and flinging your purse on your bed) and piggyback another action onto that one (toss some workout gear on your bed before you leave for work; later, when you put your purse on your bed, change into workout gear. You’re now more likely to exercise). Identify your triggers and attach actions to them. Repeat.
Use your beautiful things.If you’re anything like me, you might have the good candle, the fancy olive oil, the book you’re saving for a rainy day. If you actually follow through on using these as planned, and the anticipation helps you savor the experience—great! I never do, and my pretty things go unused. We don’t necessarily need to save all the good things for later. It’s a balancing act. Today needs to be beautiful, too.
Remember that nothing is too big or too small. Lastly, it’s important to remember that self-care doesn’t scale. Write your novel. Wash your face. It all matters.
The wonderful thing about self-care is that it’s a positive feedback loop; the more we do it, the more we benefit, and the more we realize we can’t go without it. Self-care isn’t selfish. We need to invest time in ourselves so that we become the best versions of ourselves. Not only will we be better for it, but everyone around us will benefit. However, our instincts often aren’t incredibly helpful in following through with good investments. It’s a learned skill.
Today, pick one thing, do it, and savor the awesome feeling of knowing how to make yourself shine. (Hear that? It’s your future self cheering wildly.) Persevere and know that it’ll be worth it: Real self-care is one of the best investments you will ever make.